AH | HA by Lisbeth Gruwez builds from a quiet place, a place of frozen repose. When the audience finally is allowed to enter the space, the five performers are already standing in the dark, unmoving. It invites a sense of the held breath, a stillness from the audience, our attention drawn to the beginning of a theatrical experience in arrested mode. Counter to the usual practice at the Esplanade, I did not notice any pre-performance announcement and found this a relief. The flow between the everyday into the performative made my body-as-audience somehow already part of the action taking place on stage. Having said that, however, during the performance, there were distracting moments when the vibrations on stage met with phone vibrations.
The lights turn on to a visually stunning scape, somewhere between a skate park and a field. The set is a green slope, a simple design somewhere between natural and fake, romantic and overdone. The oversaturation of colour is matched with fabulous costuming reminiscent of ABBA’s tax-efficient Eurovision fashion revolution. There seems to be a nod of self-awareness that perhaps there is something dorky and humorous about taking apart laughter as a physical experience, and making an evening-length performance of it — and the approach to artistic creation might be something both recognisably European and an international phenomenon.
When their bodies begin bouncing, it sounds as if their action is making the set squeak, which begins to sound like the clock is ticking. The sound design continually blends the physical and visual experience into an imaginative space, revealing a masterful connection between dance and music. They save their statement for a satisfying, humanistic end. Throughout an hour of rigorous silenced laughter, the bouncing bodies are presented in a frontal way, their faces contorted in slow motion. The single act of laughter is split apart into a slew of experiences, between pain and pleasure, ridicule and sympathy, confusion and connection. The dancers’ faces and bodies are continually engaged between stillness and movement, as if at any given moment a picture is being taken.
This awareness of being watched allows them to tread into testing an audience’s patience: at some moments, the repetitive (if rhythmically interesting) nature of the work means that every person’s seat-shift reads as a fidget of impatience, a sigh of frustration. When inviting our attention to the bodily, that means the audience’s movement is very much a part of the experience too. This is a risky move, though the pay-off is excellent, when, after a dull moment where I might hear shoes squeak, there is a giggle, for instance. The shift is wonderfully felt in the moments where the dancers touch. Everybody is still, when images of uproarious ecstasy become senses of intimacy, the bodies become vulnerable and open to sexual and non-sexual skin-to-skin contact. There is a hunger here, for cinematic imagery to become immediate and present. The ensemble who carry the work draws us in so perfectly across the fourth wall.